Across the United States this weekend, some Ukrainian refugees are marking Independence Day by celebrating their own new starts.
Since Russia began its attacks on Ukraine on February 24, there have been over 71,000 Ukrainians that have sought refuge in the United States. In total, more than eight million Ukrainians have fled the country.
One group of refugees fled Ukraine amid attacks from Russia three months ago, embarking on a tumultuous journey to leave their home country. After they escaped to Moldova, they traveled to Amsterdam, took a flight to Mexico, and finally walked across the border to the United States. NBC News’ Kerry Sanders met with the group at a church shelter in San Rafael, California, located in the Bay Area of the state.
The shelter has quickly become a place that one of the refugees, Victor, calls the “first comfort” that they have had since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Many of those at the shelter have spent their time practicing and learning English in online lessons each day, while some fear that they may never return back to their home country due to the destruction from continued attacks made by Russia. Elsy Alvarado, a BayMarin Community Church volunteer, explained, “People weren’t planning to leave their country, but they are under attack.”
“I feel in this country, I have some hope,” Victor told Sanders of his future.
He also cited the volunteers at the shelter a massive help during this difficult period of their lives, telling Sanders, “Without the help of volunteers I don’t know what we do.”
Among the volunteers at the church shelter is Marina Gelman, who immigrated to the United States from Odesa, Ukraine with her family more than four decades ago. Gelman’s own family escaped persecution by Adolf Hitler and the KGB, which has informed her own feelings toward Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
This Fourth of July weekend, volunteers at the shelter are in the process of making space at the shelter for another family seeking refuge in the Bay Area.
Monday, June 20 marked World Refugee Day, a day that felt more poignant given the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Weeks before the holiday, Lidiya Yankovskaya’s Refugee Orchestra Project came together for a performance on Memorial Day that would specifically benefit the Ukrainian refugee crisis and raise money for charity amid the war, as well as support the Relief Fund for Ukrainian Musicians.
“When the Syrian refugee crisis began, I saw so much anti-refugee sentiment around me and it was very surprising to me in this country, because we are a country of immigrants and refugees,” Yankovskaya told NBC’s Anne Thompson. “I thought ‘What can I do to help with this problem?’ I’m not a politician, but I am a musician…Music is one job that is transferable no matter what language you speak, no matter what culture you come from.”